#1271: “I went no-contact with an abusive parent who is dying now. What are the rules here?”

Content notes for alcohol addiction, emotional abuse, illness requiring hospitalization.

O Captain, My Captain,

My mother was always (imo) an emotionally abusive narcissist. I’m the oldest of 3 and the scapegoat. She became an alcoholic when I was 16 or 17, has been hospitalised with liver failure a number of times in the last 12 years. She now has a few months left, maybe less. I think she’s a terrible person, but to be clear that’s not a blanket judgement of alcoholics/addicts.

We’ve been no contact since Christmas 2018 and despite going through some hard things it’s been the best time of my life (I’ve always struggled with non-existent self-esteem, depression, anxiety, etc). I have no regrets, and my dad and siblings have been pretty good about it.

My dad was an enabler of my mom’s treatment of me and her alcohol use. He’s not malicious and does his best but frankly, it wasn’t good enough. There was a roof over our heads and food in the fridge but I was the one who did a lot of parenting, marriage counseling, personal support, practical fallout management, etc, even as a young kid. I didn’t really have a social identity or dating life of my own until the last year and a half, and parenting someone 1.5 yrs younger than me created a lot of friction with my (golden child) sister especially. I don’t think we will ever be close except in times of crisis like this, but she’s grown up a lot and I’m very proud of her. She’s a nurse and my dad’s been leaning very hard on her through the latest relapse/hospitalisation. My brother and I are closer but he doesn’t really talk about his feelings much, despite my efforts to give him a forum for it. I’ve been doing my best to support them and my dad while maintaining my boundaries.

This isn’t the first time we’ve been told that my mom is 50/50 to last the month, and it’s the second time she’s been hospitalised since I went no-contact (the last straw for me was also the last straw for her liver. The liver recovered somewhat, our relationship didn’t).
I’m not sure why I feel more affected this time. Maybe I can’t let it go because my dad thinks this relapse is due to her contract employment not being renewed, which he thinks is because of a complaint to her professional association about the cognitive effects of her long-term alcohol abuse. She was cleared but it alerted her employer. I made the complaint due to stories my dad told me that made me feel strongly that she should not be trusted with the health care of vulnerable people. I had originally suggested he do so but he refused, citing their financial status. I couldn’t live with the thought that she could hurt someone and went ahead after a few weeks. (Not that it should matter, but my parents were fine financially. My dad’s always worried unnecessarily and always told me more than I wanted to know about their money). I feel a little guilty but I still think I did the right thing. I do fear my dad’s reaction if he found out.

For some reason I’m now having a really strong urge to call and speak to my mother. There’s not a specific thing I want to get off my chest. Honestly I don’t even know what I would say. I do have some questions but zero faith that I would get truthful or constructive answers, and I don’t think that the experience would be comforting. I’m not imagining my mother having a deathbed epiphany and suddenly not sucking.

I put a lot of time and energy in therapy into grieving/accepting that I never got a mom and never would, and I didn’t expect this to hit me so hard. I don’t think anyone realises that it has, and I don’t really have the words to explain it. It’s so accepted in my family that Letter Writer doesn’t care about mom that it’s kind of hard to bring it up. I know that my dad has already tried to play Grief Olympics with my sister.

Maybe it’s just that I’m off work due to the pandemic and I have a lot of time, but I keep thinking that this is my last chance.

I’d be grateful for any advice/perspective/experience you or your wonderful community would be willing to share. Thanks very much,


Dear Scapegoat,

I’m so sorry about your mom, that sounds like a terrible way to go. I hope this is reaching you in time to help you. You’re not the only one in this situation – the pandemic is blurring a lot of boundaries and making people re-evaluate their relationships – so thank you for helping me form a frame for a thing I want to say to lots of people.

I believe that you don’t have to reach out to estranged family just because they are dying, you don’t have to give people who abused you one last chance to make amends at the risk of it being one last chance to abuse you, and you definitely don’t have to accept pressure from people who have never had to survive what you survived but nonetheless want you to live out their redemption fantasies for them. Those of you who kicked yourselves free are allowed to keep right on swimming.

However, if you want to call your mom and talk to her – just because – you are allowed to do that.

It doesn’t have to be to resolve the issues between you, it doesn’t have to yield “truthful” or “constructive” answers, no epiphanies required. You can literally call your mom to say that the sun is shining where you are and you spotted her favorite kind of flower on your walk just now and it reminded you of her and how is her day going and did she catch the latest episode of her favorite show last week because you saw it but you don’t want to give her any spoilers, and by the way, does she still wear that yellow scarf your Grandma gave her, you’ve always liked that color on her. You can ask her how the hospital food is and if any of the nurses are particularly awesome and does her window have a view of anything interesting. You can say “Hey, I was just thinking of you and wanted to call. How’s today going?” 

You don’t have to say anything at all. You can sit there for a minute in silence while you both breathe different air at the same time. One minute of peace in each other’s presence might be better than what went before, and that might be all the “better” you get.

Wanting to call her is a good enough reason to call her. The reasons you didn’t do it before now (and might never do it) are good enough reasons, too. Even if there were a wrong way, you would be allowed to get it wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time a conversation with your mom went awry, why not go out in the style to which you’ve become accustomed?

Some people will never be able to make routine pleasant small talk with family members who have done them wrong in the past. The notion of Studiously Not Talking About The Stuff is just too silly, too disrespectful, it requires too much gaslighting or self-abrogation to even contemplate. But there’s a reason I suggest possible scenarios where you and your mom don’t have to do a ton of work during whatever interaction you might have if you do call her. Time is short, energy is scarce, you are allowed to spend yours in search of a few pleasant moments in her company vs. “Hey, remember when I reported you to your profession’s certifying body because I thought you were a danger to others? Those were good times, right?” You’re a grown-up who no longer has to eat her lima beans in order to earn dessert. Take the path of least resistance for once, you might like it. 🙂

I said at the start that you weren’t alone in having a bunch of complicated family stuff resurface and you’re not, so I want to put this here:

Letter Writer, you’re allowed to take all of this one call, one day, one moment at a time. If your first call sucks, it gets to be the last. If your first couple calls go well and then the fourth one sucks, that one gets to be the last. This is something you’re doing for you. It doesn’t erase any of the other stuff that happened, and it doesn’t mean that the floodgates are now open to your mom being able to treat you any way she sees fit from now on. You’re still allowed to have preferences, needs, and boundaries. If you try to pass a few pleasant moments with your mom before she departs this plane, you’re not trading your hard-won integrity away, you’re not agreeing that all the boundaries you’ve put in place don’t matter, you’re not accepting her version of the story of your life together, nor are you stepping back into your designated spot in your family, taking up the squeaky, uncomfortable chair of blame and recriminations they’ve been keeping free for you in the draftiest part of the house. You get to do this, or not, on your own terms.

Confidential To Additional Grieving, Soon-To-Be-Grieving, and Grieving? QuestionMark? Letter Writers in Awkwardland:

We can call this the #KnivesOut rule:  Accepting a bequest or useful gift from an estranged relative and/or attending the funeral (Zoom funeral? Zoomeral?) of an estranged relative to support others who are grieving DOES NOT MEAN agreeing that you forgive everything that ever happened nor does it obligate you to be forever silent about what they were really like.

People can certainly expect compliance and silence in return for funds or gifts; it doesn’t mean that their assumptions must rule your life, or that all the bad things they handed down to you mean you only get to have those and never any good things or else somehow you are the one who is in the wrong or “just as bad.” Bequests are gifts, once a gift is yours it’s yours. Funerals are ceremonial markers of death, not do-overs.

Some families will always try to attach enough strings to make one of those giant balls at a tourist attraction before they’ll let you have anything good, and some gift horses will always need to be looked in the mouth and have their bellies double-checked for pointy invading armies before you roll them behind the walls of your city, plus I totally get the cathartic appeal of dramatically tearing up a check and saying “I don’t want or need anything from you” before storming out of a room like some fabulous soap opera character in a cloud of expensive and morally-pure confetti. Still, consider that “the new  roof your asshole uncle bought” probably keeps the rain off just fine and your homophobic grandma’s tuition dollars can be recycled into one well-educated-super-fabulous-unapologetically-gay grad the same as any other dollars (for example). If all else fails, and you’d just never feel okay with it, there are plenty of worthy causes your former tormentors might absolutely *hate* supporting. 😉 Idk, I think everyone who wrote to me about this problem is punishing themselves about it 1,000 times more than the bequeathing party ever did about anything, and maybe the extra shame we make for the shitty relatives who have none isn’t ours to carry forever.

Back to today’s specific Letter Writer: You’ve been grieving for your mom for a long time and there are still a few layers in the grief-onion ahead of you. When she goes, however long it takes, you’re going to feel sad and sorry no matter what you do, I think, so please do whatever takes the most care of you. You don’t need our permission, but you’ve got it anyway.